Onscene as U.S. Troops Get Ready for Vote

Lt. Col. John Norris stands in front of a crowd of Iraqi police chiefs, Iraqi army generals and high-ranking American officers, all gathered under a massive tan tent on Forward Operating Base Courage in Mosul, Iraq. The tent is usually reserved for basketball games only—it covers a full-sized court with two hoops. But this particular Sunday, it's the briefing room to rehearse the city-wide plan for the Oct. 15 referendum on the Iraqi constitution. Large satellite maps of Iraq's third-largest city cover the wall; another map of Ninewa province is laid out on floor. "Our mission," says the 42-year old Kentucky native, is to "support the Iraqi Security Forces in providing security for the Oct. 15 referendum, and to assist the IECI [Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq]." And with the typically dry words of a military brief, so begins the busiest week of the war for Norris and his soldiers in the 4-23 Battalion, aka the Tomahawks, part of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

The mission begins on Monday with soccer balls. In a gravel lot behind the 4-23 headquarters, crews from four Strykers—heavily armored, fast-moving Stars-Wars-looking vehicles with enough firepower to take out a small nation state—wait for their commander to show up. The 172nd picked up 100,000 balls from a dealer in Kurdistan; the idea is to hand them out to kids as a goodwill gesture. The only problem is blowing them up. Sgt. 1st Class William Crowley, 32, from Seattle holds the only air pump. Sitting on the back of the Stryker, he fills two balls. The driver, 22-year old Specialist Bryon Pirilo from San Diego, decides to rig an air hose from the Stryker to speed up the process. A boom thuds in the distance, off towards the city. The consensus: sounds like a VBIED. "Somebody's having a bad day," says the unit's interpreter, a 35-year old from Dallas, fluent in both Arabic and Kurdish who goes by the name Cooper. Norris arrives, dressed in full combat gear, and gives the word: "Let's go."

Tabling the soccer-ball dilemma for now, Norris climbs into a Stryker and the convoy moves out. His first stop is to the district police station in eastern Mosul. He wants to make sure the district chief, who was at the rehearsal, understands his role in the referendum. The military's official line is that this vote is an "Iraqi show" and that the United States is keeping its "hands off." But the reality is that without extensive prodding and assistance from the American military, there wouldn't be a vote. Along with other units across the country, the 172nd Brigade in Mosul is playing a key role, from transporting IECI officials around to scouting the polls, to dropping off concrete blast barriers around the city, to protecting the Iraqi security forces, who are in turn protecting the polls. The hope is that this will be a trial run for the Dec. 15 elections that will form the first permanent government in Iraq—and that that vote really will be an Iraqi show.

The district police chief's office, on the third floor of the police compound, is dimly lit; sandbags block the windows. Norris goes over the plan, telling Col. Anan, the chief, how many polling sites his police need to protect. In military parlance, the chief isn't "tracking." After about twenty minutes, the chief finally says he doesn't have enough men to do the job.

"One of my police came in this morning and put his gun down on my desk, and said I'm quitting because this was the second time I was threatened," he says. The officer got a phone call and text message warning him that if he continued in his job he'd be killed, says Anan. The chief continues with his complaints: he claims 64 absentees, he says he won't protect all the sites assigned to him and says that if anything does goes wrong, it won't be his responsibility.

This is not what Norris wants to hear.

"You have enough men," Norris says. "We will work together. We will not let the Iraqi people down."

The chief stands up, dramatically slamming his hand against the wall.

"Seventy percent of my men are here only for the paycheck," he says.

Norris stares at the chief, his face set.

"It is the goal of our mission to assist in election security for the Iraqi people," Norris replies. "We are all putting ourselves in danger, but that is the price that must be paid for progress. The burden is on all our shoulders for a successful election, a democratic Iraq."

After five more minutes of discussion, the meeting ends. The police chief agrees to check out the polling sites tomorrow to see if he can secure them. Norris assures him he can.

En route to a second police station, Norris gets a call over the radio: his recon platoon found a weapons cache and has detained four men. Minutes later, the back of the Stryker drops and Norris jumps out on the street in the testy Al Sinaa neighborhood, where the unit had seen its heaviest fighting three weeks before. On that day, the gun battle lasted eight hours and left 18 Iraqi soldiers injured and one American soldier without a leg. "Be careful," Norris tells a NEWSWEEK reporter. "This is how it started last time." Four men stand with hoods over their faces next to the Al Rahma ("Mercy") auto shop. Twenty feet away, the soldiers laid out their find: a pistol with a silencer attached, an AK-47, a manual on how to make bombs, explosives, and a half dozen of IEDs, one already made and ready to go. "We heard there were bad guys in the area," says 1st Lieutenant Jeff Marshburn, the 33-year old platoon leader from Jacksonville, Ala. "They were giving us the evil eye." Norris asks his interpreter, Cooper, to start interrogating the men.

In a split second, Norris makes the jump from "city manager"—as he describes his work—to chief of a combat operation. It's perhaps the hardest challenge his men face everyday, transitioning between helping and fighting, sometimes by the hour. "We're trained to clear rooms, to kick down doors, to kill," Norris says. "One minute, you're picking up a dead body, the next you're handing out candies to kids. One day I'm in a kinetic combat operation, the next day I'm trying to figure out to help the Iraqis open a polling site."

The next day the first item on Norris's agenda is a local radio interview on the Iraqi Media Network. The IMN has the biggest tower in Mosul; a "beacon for mortars," as one soldier puts it. According to the officer manager, Haiman Fadhil, 47, nine employees of the station have been assassinated since 2003, seven in the past year. The most recent victim was a 50-something female engineer, Ahlam Youseef. She was shot to death with her son and husband two weeks ago, says Fadhil. The office manager has received death threats many times, including a video sent by the insurgents showing three masked men saying he would be killed if the station continued working with the Americans. During Ramadan last year, the station was assaulted by armed men. The police fled and Fahdil and his colleagues fought them off for 30 minutes until an American helicopter arrived. So why does he keep working? "I love my job," he says.

Inside a studio smelling of stale cigarette smoke, the interview goes smoothly. It's a chance for Norris to introduce himself to the community. The 172nd arrived in Iraq only a month ago. He says he's from the 4-23 Tomahawks and will provide 24 hour security for the people of Mosul. In Norris's area, which covers about half of the city, there are 9 police districts, and 2 battalions of Iraqi Army. He fields a call from a local woman asking how she can go vote; he ends with a brief statement. "To the good and noble citizens of Mosul," he says, "We feel we are part of a historic moment in your election process as you are beginning to govern yourself in a free Iraq."

Before heading to Hammamalil, a relatively peaceful suburb a ten-minute drive south of Mosul, Norris stops the Stryker convoy outside the base to pick up the unit's medic. He gives the okay to start passing out soccer balls. A dozen children sprint across a field decorated with trash. The soldiers start to lob balls over the chain-link fence; the kids press up against the barrier, small hands grabbing in between the spikes on the concertina wire. They scream for more soccer balls, more candy; melees break out among the kids. Handing out soccer balls, is "both a burden and a pleasure," says Staff Sergeant Andrew Lang, 25, from Cincinnati, Ohio. "I mean, it's hell on my security. But it makes them smile." Specialist Richard Oxner doesn't think the kids are sharing; with his rifle slung over the shoulder he approaches the fence and slips the tiniest child a toy truck. "The bigger kids were taking everything, I wanted to make sure the little guy got something," he says. The convoy heads off to Hammamalil for the afternoon, to visit another police chief and to check in on newly built training facility for the Iraqi Army. Two more suicide car bombs go off in Mosul.

Wednesday goes much the same way for Norris; more meetings with local leaders, hammering out the endless logistical problems to get the polling sites ready for the referendum. Reports come in that yesterday's car bomb was carrying a woman passenger. It's the second instance in Mosul in recent weeks where the suicide bombers have had a passenger, changing their profile: no longer are bombers always single male drivers. The "no roll" policy—which forbids people from driving on the roads—goes into effect. The streets are empty, only sheeps and chicken.

On Thursday evening, three hours after sunset, Norris steps out on the deck behind the 4-23 headquarters. He lights a cigar; from here, he can see the entire city of Mosul. He's been in the military since 1984; he started as an enlisted Marine. He fought in Desert Storm in 1991. "It was a quiet day," he says, cigar in hand, leg up on the wooden railing. "Only two IEDS." He pauses. "Thursday nights are my quiet nights." Tomorrow is Friday, usually the day of rest in Iraq. Not this week.

Onscene as U.S. Troops Get Ready for Vote | News